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Home | Wire | In What Way Are Political Representatives Representative?

In What Way Are Political Representatives Representative?

  • Humpty dumpty

Tags Political Theory


[Excerpt from Gerard Casey, Libertarian Anarchy Against the State, chap. 6: Deligitimizing the State.]

What does it mean for one person to represent another? Under normal circumstances those who represent us do so at our bidding and cease to do so at our bidding. They act on our instructions within the boundaries of a certain remit and we are responsible for what they do as our agents. The central characteristic of representation by agency is that the agent is responsible to his principal and is bound to act in the principal's interest. Is this the situation with my so-called political representatives? Political representatives are not (usually) legally answerable to those whom they allegedly represent. In fact, in modern democratic states, the majority of a representative's putative principals are in fact unknown to him. Can a political representative be the agent of a multitude? This also seems unlikely. What if there are multiple principals and they have interests that diverge from each other? A political representative must then of necessity cease to represent one or more of his principals. The best that can be done in these circumstances is for the politician to serve the many and betray the few.1 In this very normal political scenario, it is not that it is difficult to represent a constituency — it is rather that it is impossible.2 There is no interest common to the constituency as a whole, or, if there is, it is so rare as to be practically non-existent. That being the case, there is nothing that can be represented.

Some may take issue with the notion of representation presented here and argue that we are dealing with a considerably more complex phenomenon, that political representation is just one instance of a variety of types of representation, that representation can be symbolic,3 formal, religious4 or iconic. Firstly, while my remarks apply primarily to representation-as-agency, similar considerations can be brought to bear on representation as trustee, deputy or commissioner and so on. Once again, as with our desert island drama, the basic conceptual point can be grasped from the single example of representation-as-agency — there is little to be gained, except a soothing tedium, from a rehearsal of the inapplicability of the other paradigmatic types to political representation.

Having exhaustively examined the various instances of unproblematic representation — agent, trustee, deputy, commissioner and so on — Pitkin regretfully concludes that none of them seems capable of carrying the burden that political representation must carry if it is to be adequately robust. The political representative 'is neither agent nor trustee nor deputy nor commissioner; he acts for a group of people without a single interest, most of whom seem incapable of forming an explicit will on political questions'.5 It is difficult to see how this point could be made more clearly. One might perhaps think that such a state of conceptual confusion would lead one to give up any idea of discovering a coherent or consistent account of political representation but Pitkin ploughs on. She wonders if we should abandon the very idea of political representation and considers the possibility that 'representation in politics is only a fiction, a myth forming part of the folklore of our society'.6 Even more radically, she wonders whether we should not 'simply accept the fact that what we have been calling representative government is in reality just party competition for office'.7

One is tempted to say — Yes! Yes! Alas, Pitkin says — No! No! She thinks that perhaps it is 'a mistake to approach political representation too directly from the various individual representation analogies — agent and trustee and deputy'8 at one stroke abandoning her working assumption of a common semantic core lying at the heart of the notion of representation. Having abandoned the common core idea, she proceeds to suggest a kind of institutional or systemic account.

Political representation is primarily a public, institutionalized arrangement involving many people and groups, and operating in the complex ways of large-scale social arrangements. What makes it representation is not any single action by any one participant, but the over-all structure and functioning of the system, the patterns emerging from the multiple activities of many people. It is representation if the people (or a constituency) are present in governmental action, even though they do not literally act for themselves.9

Given what she has been urging up to this point, this recommendation is a counsel of despair. It comes to this. None of the paradigmatic uses of the term 'representation', as instanced by the various examples Pitkin considers (deputy, agent and so on) suffices to make sense of the idea of political representation so Pitkin invents a whole new unsubstantiated stipulative systemic account of representation that has no roots in our ordinary use of that term. Instead of individuals representing, we instead have an entire system that represents. We are to forget that we have been unable to make any sense of individual political representation; we can kick the problem upstairs by ignoring the individual and having the system itself be representative, albeit in a somewhat mysterious and yet-to-be explained way. Let us risk committing the fallacy of composition and assert that if the idea of explicating political representation by means of the analysis of individual acts of agency, trusteeship and so on is unrealizable, the problem is hardly solved by simply positing 'the system' as the super agent of representation. I would go further: the systemic account is not only unhelpful it is obfuscatory, appearing to explain when in fact it simply sweeps the problem under a pseudo-explanatory carpet in a manner reminiscent of the postulation of 'dormitive power' by the doctor in Moliere's Le Malade lmaginaire as an explanation of the soporific qualities of opium. This, of course, is to explain the obscure by the more obscure; it is also a striking example of what Alfred North Whitehead called 'The Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness.'

If it is to be tenable, representative or indirect democracy requires a clear, robust and defensible conception of representation. No such conception has been forthcoming and it is doubtful if any ever will be forthcoming. It used to be said that only three things were definitely true of the Holy Roman Empire: it wasn't holy, it wasn't Roman and it wasn't an empire. Similarly, two things are definitely true of representative democracy: it is not democracy and it is not representative. In the end, representation is a fig leaf that is insufficient to cover the naked and brutal fact that even in our sophisticated modern states, however elegant the rhetoric and however persuasive the propaganda, some rule and others are ruled. The only question is, as Humpty-Dumpty noted in Through the Looking-Glass, '... which is to be master — that's all'.10

  • 1. [Note: footnote numbers have been renumbered for consistency in this Mises Wire.] I acknowledge here my obvious debt here to the thought of Lysander Spooner.
  • 2. H.F. Pitkin, The Concept of Democracy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), p. 215; pp. 219–20.
  • 3. An instance of symbolic representation occurs when Elrond is choosing the Company of the Ring in Tolkein's Lord of the Rings. He says: 'For the rest, they shall represent the other Free Peoples of the World: Elves, Dwarves, and Men. Legolas shall be for the Elves; and Gimli, son of Gloin for the Dwarves. ... For men you have shall have Aragorn ...' J.R.R. Tolkien, Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings (London: Harper Collins, 1969), p. 362.
  • 4. An instance of religious representation can be seen when a Catholic priest is said to represent Christ in the sacrament of confession when he says, 'ego te absolvo ...'.
  • 5. Pitkin, The Concept of Democracy, p. 221.
  • 6. Ibid.
  • 7. Ibid.
  • 8. Ibid.
  • 9. Ibid., pp. 221–22. She picks up this idea again when she says '... when we speak of political representation, we are almost always speaking of individuals acting in an institutionalized representative system, and it is against the background of that system as a whole that their action constitute representation, if they do'. (p. 225)
  • 10. Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass (London: Hart-Davis, MacGib, [1871] 1972), p. 81.

Gerard Casey is a Professor in the School of Philosophy at University College Dublin and an Associated Scholar at the Mises Institute. He is author of Libertarian Anarchy: Against the State and Murray Rothbard (Major Conservative and Libertarian Thinkers).

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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